“Made it Ma, top of the world!”

“Made it Ma, top of the world!”

Terrorism is Oedipus Unresolved


27 March 2017

Terrorism is Oedipus Unresolved

Tragically terrorism has again been visited on London. What, in phantasy, was the perpetrator trying to achieve? Not being able to interview him makes us speculate, but we have a good enough body of theoretical knowledge to make reasonable assumptions and draw conclusions.

The Oedipus complex involves a process of giving up phantasies of controlling and dominating those who in reality control and dominate us; in other words, accepting our limitations and associated feelings of shame at the discovery of one’s relative smallness and lack of importance in the bigger scheme of things. This letting go enables the development of more realistic and achievable satisfactions through the acquisition of knowledge, skills and abilities.

The terrorist is total physicality without words – mindlessly inflicting pain and suffering on anonymous victims and their families; creating fear in society and the feeling of being unsafe in one’s own home. What goes through the mind of the terrorist as he does his killing? We can speculate that they imagine winning the cheering approval of their controllers, their brethren and their gods (substitutes for “Ma”); of being lifted up from their sense of oblivion into glorious adoration – “look at me; look at me”. This is primary narcissism, worshipping the “Great I am” which is based on a mental vacuum devoid of a sense of human feeling for others and no capacity for psychological work and delayed gratification.

What of the wider social aspects of terrorism? How do individuals get collectivised obediently into political and religious systems? The answer must surely be the futile offers of redemption and eternal love that attract the unattached and socially dislocated with deluded promises of joining the brotherhood of honoured members – martyrdom – a once-and-for-all achievement of nirvana requiring annihilation of thought and emotional understanding. They inhabit a world of no doubts, no failure, no disappointment and no struggle, features that make up the lives of most mortals.

The religious movements are themselves caught in unresolved group oedipal conflict based on a socialised splitting of the “bad them and their gods” and the “good us and our gods” and the failure to navigate away from phantasies of perfection towards the realities and sometimes pain of an imperfect world and our imperfect selves in order to engage in the struggle to make the best of what we can.

Improving security arrangements and improving educational systems are important; so are the many attempts to increase social integration between communities, at work and through leisure. The people who work in these areas should be acknowledged and valued. But we can also pay attention to the power of unconscious phantasy of the human mind at individual and group levels that drives people to do monstrously sadistic and evil acts.

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations offers programmes of study for addressing unconscious phantasy and increasing mature thinking through knowledge of individual and group minds.

Dr Mannie Sher, PhD
Director, Group Relations Programme and
Principal Researcher & Consultant

The title of this article “Made it Ma – top of the world!” is said by James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

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